Research Article

Principles of assembly reveal a periodic table of protein complexes

Science  11 Dec 2015:
Vol. 350, Issue 6266,
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaa2245

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The principles of protein assembly

A knowledge of protein structure greatly enhances our understanding of protein function. In many cases, function depends on oligomerization. Ahnert et al. used mass spectrometry data together with a large-scale analysis of structures of protein complexes to examine the fundamental steps of protein assembly. Systematically combining assembly steps revealed a large set of quaternary topologies that were organized into a periodic table. Based on this table, the authors accurately predicted the expected frequencies of quaternary structure topologies.

Science, this issue p. 10.1126/science.aaa2245

Structured Abstract

INTRODUCTION

The assembly of proteins into complexes is crucial for most biological processes. The three-dimensional structures of many thousands of homomeric and heteromeric protein complexes have now been determined, and this has had a broad impact on our understanding of biological function and evolution. Despite this, the organizing principles that underlie the great diversity of protein quaternary structures observed in nature remain poorly understood, particularly in comparison with protein folds, which have been extensively classified in terms of their architecture and evolutionary relationships.

RATIONALE

In this work, we sought a comprehensive understanding of the general principles underlying quaternary structure organization. Our approach was to consider protein complexes in terms of their assembly. Many protein complexes assemble spontaneously via ordered pathways in vitro, and these pathways have a strong tendency to be evolutionarily conserved. Furthermore, there are strong similarities between protein complex assembly and evolutionary pathways, with assembly pathways often being reflective of evolutionary histories, and vice versa. This suggests that it may be useful to consider the types of protein complexes that have evolved from the perspective of what assembly pathways are possible.

RESULTS

We first examined the fundamental steps by which protein complexes can assemble, using electrospray mass spectrometry experiments, literature-curated assembly data, and a large-scale analysis of protein complex structures. We found that most assembly steps can be classified into three basic types: dimerization, cyclization, and heteromeric subunit addition. By systematically combining different assembly steps in different ways, we were able to enumerate a large set of possible quaternary structure topologies, or patterns of key interfaces between the proteins within a complex. The vast majority of real protein complex structures lie within these topologies. This enables a natural organization of protein complexes into a “periodic table,” because each heteromer can be related to a simpler symmetric homomer topology. Exceptions are mostly the result of quaternary structure assignment errors, or cases where sequence-identical subunits can have different interactions and thus introduce asymmetry. Many of these asymmetric complexes fit the paradigm of a periodic table when their assembly role is considered. Finally, we implemented a model based on the periodic table, which predicts the expected frequencies of each quaternary structure topology, including those not yet observed. Our model correctly predicts quaternary structure topologies of recent crystal and electron microscopy structures that are not included in our original data set.

CONCLUSION

This work explains much of the observed distribution of known protein complexes in quaternary structure space and provides a framework for understanding their evolution. In addition, it can contribute considerably to the prediction and modeling of quaternary structures by specifying which topologies are most likely to be adopted by a complex with a given stoichiometry, potentially providing constraints for multi-subunit docking and hybrid methods. Lastly, it could help in the bioengineering of protein complexes by identifying which topologies are most likely to be stable, and thus which types of essential interfaces need to be engineered.

Protein assembly steps lead to a periodic table of protein complexes and can predict likely quaternary structure topologies.

Three main assembly steps are possible: cyclization, dimerization, and subunit addition. By combining these in different ways, a large set of possible quaternary structure topologies can be generated. These can be arranged on a periodic table that describes most known complexes and that can predict previously unobserved topologies.

Abstract

Structural insights into protein complexes have had a broad impact on our understanding of biological function and evolution. In this work, we sought a comprehensive understanding of the general principles underlying quaternary structure organization in protein complexes. We first examined the fundamental steps by which protein complexes can assemble, using experimental and structure-based characterization of assembly pathways. Most assembly transitions can be classified into three basic types, which can then be used to exhaustively enumerate a large set of possible quaternary structure topologies. These topologies, which include the vast majority of observed protein complex structures, enable a natural organization of protein complexes into a periodic table. On the basis of this table, we can accurately predict the expected frequencies of quaternary structure topologies, including those not yet observed. These results have important implications for quaternary structure prediction, modeling, and engineering.

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